Africa: Becoming French Set to Get Harder for Immigrants

As part of an overhaul of France's citizenship test to address concerns over social cohesion, the government is proposing a tough new French language competency exam. Critics say it will restrict access to elites.

"Becoming French is demanding," that's how French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe summed up the government's reason for making the language test more difficult.

Currently candidates have to sit a 45-minute exam and answer 90 multiple-choice questions, part of which is based on a conversation with an examiner.

They need to reach a B1 "intermediate" level, meaning they can understand and converse on a range of everyday subjects.

After the summer, the level required could be more difficult.

"This requirement is necessary in order to guarantee the cohesion of our country," Philippe said during a naturalisation ceremony in March.

Yet even before the changes, the test was already difficult. Francophone rapper Maître Gims would know. The 31-year old Congolese singer failed the language exam last year after his second attempt, telling the weekly Le Point "he did not understand why."

Long journeys

"It is a long, long journey," comments Mapi Shema*, a cook from Mali. She became a French citizen last year after waiting 18 years, battling numerous bureaucratic hurdles along the way.

"Each time I went to the police department for an appointment, I gave all the required documents but each time they told me that something was missing," she told RFI.

"My appointment could have been on 10 May, but I would then have to wait another 3 to 4 months for the next one.

Last month, Irish correspondent Lara Marlowe wrote an op-ed piece explaining how becoming French was perhaps the longest journey of her life. It took her 16 years to acquire "sworn translations of virtually every civil document" of her life and that of her parents.

Spike over Brexit

"It doesn't seem to me like it's an unusually long process," comments Glanville Fields, a certified translator who has helped thousands of legal applicants through the naturalisation process that lasts "on average one to two years."

"It sounds like this case [of Lara Marlowe] was just someone who had been here for a long time and then finally decided to apply, bearing in mind there's a spike in applications due to Brexit. It doesn't sound like the process itself was drawn out for nearly 20 years," he told RFI.

Glanville, a Californian native who himself went through the citizenship test in the 1990s, "already had two degrees in higher education" and was exempt of any language requirement.

Migrants are not so lucky.

"From now on, candidates of foreign origin will no longer be judged on the number of years they have spent in France but on their intellectual and financial ability to speak French," says Laurence Roques, president of the National Union for French Lawyers and a member of Gisti, an information support group for migrants.

"It goes against France's Republican pact, it closes the door to French nationality for migrants," she told RFI.

Choosing elites

Foreigners are eligible to apply for naturalisation after five years on French soil, and if they are able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of French culture and the language.

In 2018, over 77,000 people obtained the French nationality according to Insée, France's national statistics office, a drop of 7 percent compared to the year before.

Immigrants are less likely to make the crop reckons Roques, who sees the strict language test as a move favouring the elites.

"By choosing who gets the nationality, we're also choosing our voters," she said, pointing to the upcoming European elections, where populist parties are currently dominating the polls.

Elsewhere, for people like Robert Fopa, the French language "should not be the only criteria" to judge a person's integration.

More than language

"There is lack of support for migrants and little help or training to show them how to integrate into French society and be part of what I call 'living together'," he told RFI.

Fopa, an education specialist, has been campaigning for greater integration for migrants for over 30 years, and every year organises an intercultural gastronomic event to build bridges between migrants and locals.

"Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are," he explains about the event's objective.

For Mapi Shema, the food is one of the things that inspired her to apply for French nationality.

"I have grown up in France, I have become attached to this country," she says, about her arrival in the 1990s when France still used the franc currency.

"There were products that you could only find in France and which never broke down," she comments about a refrigerator she bought and still uses today.

"I became attached to the French's eye for quality and detail, its culture. It's small, but with time I have come to feel at home here," a suggestion that the mark of citizenship extends beyond language.

*Mapi Shema's name has been changed to protect her identity

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